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James Hague - The Atari Times

James Hague

Renowned 8-Bit Programmer
by Gregory D. George

September 8, 1997
In my younger years, I spent many an hour sitting in front of my Atari 800XL typing in game after game from Antic magazine. One of my more favorite type-in contributors was James Hague. Well, can you guess my excitement when I happened upon James in one of the Atari newsgroups?! He was kind enough to answer some questions about the type-in days and what he's been up to since. James...?

Of the 8-bit games you programmed, which was the most difficult and why?
The Electroids took the longest to write, because it was the first serious thing I ever did in 6502 assembly language. It took me four or five months to write such a simple game! Not to mention that the final version had at least a dozen bugs in it, I'll sheepishly admit. )I wrote a version for the Macintosh in 1996, in PowerPC assembly, and went from start to finish in only eight days. To the best of my knowledge, it was the second game ever written in PowerPC assembly.

Current Events I remember getting frustrated while writing some of the later games I did for Antic, like Current Events. They were a big mix of BASIC, assembly subroutines, and assembly code that ran during the vertical blank. I crammed as much code as I could into a 256 byte routine that would fit into page six, wrote down the entry points into the code by looking at the symbol table the assembler spit out, and then used those constants in USR calls. What a mess! I think they looked pretty sharp for BASIC games, though. E-Racer almost looked like it was written in 100% assembly. Almost.

Which did you like the best?
The Electroids is the one I kept playing over the years, so I give it the nod. It's so simple, like Pac-Man, and it has that "I know I can do better this time!" feeling about it. Current Events is a close second. Two people could kill a lot of time duking it out with that game. By the way, Antic screwed-up the graphics when they converted the custom character set from DATA statements to strings. The top and bottom of the playfield is supposed to be a straight line, not a toothy pattern. Rats!

Where did you get the inspiration for your gameS?
I was determined to be original, not to clone popular arcade games like many people were doing at the time. So instead of starting with, say, Donkey Kong, I thought in terms of random bits of gameplay that could be pieced together to make a game. I'd start thinking about a jumping character and what could be done with that, or how the jumping mechanic could be twisted into something a bit different. I must've kicked around ideas for weeks or longer before settling on something. I threw out ten ideas for each one I tried to implement.

Uncle Henry's Nuclear Waste DumpLooking back, I think I succeeded in being original. Rockslide! was the least so, being based on one part of Sega's Pengo. But Uncle Henry's Nuclear Waste Dump could be classified as a Tetris derivative, except that I wrote it in 1986, which was before Tetris was released. The other games, like E-Racer and Current Events, are still pretty different, even today.

Did you ever take into consideration making the programs short so the readers wouldn't lose their minds?!?
I tried to write games with a minimal amount of graphics. This was not only because they would be easier to type-in, but because I designed all the graphics by hand on graph paper. The Electroids only had 112 bytes of graphics in the whole game. Good grief!

The Electroids was the first game I ever submitted to a magazine, and ANALOG rejected it the first time. In addition to a few feature suggestions, someone (either Charles Bachand or Tom Hudson, I would guess) went through the assembly code and marked it up with lots of possible optimizations. This was the first time anyone ever looked at my code, and it really opened my eyes in terms of optimizing for space. I tried to keep things small from that point on. Interestingly. optimizing for speed, when writing in pure assembly, never occurred to me. These days people are speed fanatics, but you can go back and look at the source to 8-bit games like Planetary Defense and see that the author has some giant "multiply by 40" routine in there instead of a precomputed table.

I typed in a lot of games myself, so I certainly knew what it was like. I can actually remember typing in specific games like Livewire and Planetary Defense.

What did you gain from publishing the programs?
Rockslide! A bit of fame, a bit of money, and, years later, a foot in the door of the professional game programming world. Mostly, I just liked the creative aspect of writing games. If I hadn't gotten into computers, I probably would have gotten into cartooning or writing fiction as a creative outlet. There was also a family sort of atmosphere about magazines like Antic and ANALOG and I enjoyed being part of it. You'd see a game by J.D. Casten and the bio would talk about his previous efforts, etc. To me, that's what made the 8-bit days great.

What have you been up to since your 8-bit days? Any games we should know about?
The last Atari game I wrote was E-Racer, in the summer of 1988, which was published in the December Antic of that year. That was right before my junior year of college. The 8-bits were dying, I never bought an ST, and I was burning out on the whole computer thing. I didn't think about getting back into game programming until late 1991, and I bought a PC of the day to see what I could do. I floundered along, never picking up momentum, until 1993 when I answered an ad looking for a "6502 hacker." I got a job writing Super Nintendo games outside of Seattle, mostly because I sent a photocopy of the Bonk article and source code. The 65816 in the SNES was basically a 6502, so it was both fun and odd to be writing 6502 code again, and in many ways it gave some closure to my whole Atari period.

My SNES work was pretty forgettable, though, as I ended up doing coding for some unbelievably awful designs. The most notable thing I did was a few years later, in 1996, when I was one of three primary programmers who ported The Need for Speed to the Sega Saturn. After writing games on my own for so long, I must admit that I was disillusioned after turning pro. Working for months and months on a game that you can plainly see is awful is discouraging like you wouldn't believe. Doing The Need for Speed port was a total hell of fourteen hour days for months on end.At the end, my name was buried in a huge heap of credits and the game didn't even sell that well. I did stick in an easter egg, though!

Bumbler for Macintosh I left in 1996 to start my own company, Dadgum Games (http://www.dadgum.com), to make one last stab at the "crazy game designer working in his bedroom" dream. Bumbler, Dadgum's first game, was released in late 1996 and is a fusion between my old style of writing games and modern computer technology. Bumbler comes with a freebie game, Boingo Electro, that looks a whole lot like The Electroids, if you get my drift...

I also dipped back into the old days and released a digital book of interviews with classic game programmers, like the authors of Fort Apocalypse, Alternate Reality, and M.U.L.E. That was a complete blast to do.

What's the best language to program games in?
I'm still a die-hard assembly programmer, because I think it's easy and gives me the fewest headaches; assemblers tend to be a lot more bug-free than compilers. I'm not against high-level languages, but the typical C or C++ development environment is just so big and ugly! And C tries to be both an assembly and high-level language and fails on both counts.

Are there any unpublished James Hague gems for the 8-bit lying around?
I've still got the collection of BASIC games I wrote when I was first learning to program: Solar Challenge, Machine Gunner, Fast Fingers, Galactic Garbage, and Fast Cash. The first four were excruciatingly bad, each written in one sitting because I didn't have a disk drive, but they were experiments in programming and game design. Fast Cash was the first game I wrote that I'd consider playable and complete. It was one of those "worm eats things and gets longer" games, of which there were (and still are) far too many.

In the first half of 1985, I started writing a game called Spring Into Action for ANALOG. A neat design, in my humble opinion; if it was in a circa-1982 arcade it would have been as wildly surreal as Q*bert and Joust. But work went slowly and by June I was so sick of it that I deleted the source code in a fit of disgust. I worked on the design in my head over the years and wrote a SNES version with my wife Jessica in 1994.We slaved away for six months and finished the whole thing, except for sound, and some copies were passed out at the January 1995 Caste bottom had fallen out of the third-party SNES game market by then, so only a few copies of the game exist. I've beefed up the design yet again since then and have plans for a super-deluxe Mac version one of these days.

Have you been following Atari since the 8-bit? Did you buy any other system? (ST, Lynx, Jag, etc.)
I followed the ST from 1985-88, wasted a lot of time pining for one, but never went ahead. One interesting footnote to history is that ST guru Charles F. Johnson and I had our first published Atari programs in ANALOG #35, back to back. Mine was Bonk and his was "G:", a printer driver. In early 1988 I had to decide on a new system for college, and I chose a low-end PC over an ST because I could run Turbo Pascal on it to do programming assignments.

I bought a Lynx in 1992 and had great fun with APB, Pinball Jam, S.T.U.N. Runner, and Robotron. I was bitten by the nostalgia bug around that time and bought a 7800 and all the games I could. This was before people were too into collecting games, so they were dirt cheap and easy to find.

I never bought a Jag, but the company I worked for had one and I bought Tempest 2000 the week it was released. They knew I had an Atari bug, and the head of programming was the guy who wrote LBASIC for ANALOG, so I got to go to a Jaguar developers' conference in 1994.Very cool! The Jag docs came in an old "Atari Home Computers" binder and I got to see personalities like Jeff Minter and Leonard Tramiel and the fellow who designed the Jaguar chipset. I'm glad I got to finally see Atari HQ before they went belly-up. And Leonard T. came across as surprisingly level-headed, not at all the bumbler that the Tramiels are usually depicted as.

If you have a Lynx or Jag, how could your favorite & least favorite game have been improved?
APB was my favorite Lynx title. The only thing I could improve upon would be to let you start on some of the advanced levels, so you don't have to spend forty minutes working up to Day 20. Crystal Mines was my least favorite. I loved Boulder Dash, but CM took away the free-form nature of Boulder Dash and made it too much of a "figure out the exact pattern" game. The temptation was strong to fling the Lynx through a window.

I have mixed feelings about the Jaguar. The hardware was so cool, and the potential was there, but most of the games were so raw and techie. I get the feeling that a programmer cooked up a 3-D engine during spare moments here and there, wrote a feeble little game around it, and then marketing pushed it out the door. That's what Cybermorph and Club Drive look like to me. Tempest 2000 was brilliant, though.

What was Atari's biggest mistake?
Somehow Atari lost its spark when it came to game design. The games for the 7800 and Lynx didn't break new ground, they didn't have what it took to get people excited. Don't get me wrong, I like the Lynx, but I don't think the average gamer in 1992 wanted to play Robotron or APB or Gauntlet. The Lynx and Jaguar ended up preaching to the choir: the Atari fanatics loved 'em, but nobody else cared.

Do you have any Atari-stories? (ie, "Atari contacted me one day...")
In 1992 I heard you could still get 2600 programming docs from Atari, so I ordered a set for $40.Someone from Atari called me up and said "Do you really want these? Do you have any idea how hard the 2600 is to program?"

My thanks to James Hague for giving me some of his time for this interview. I really enjoyed it James!

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